Some people believe that
certain New Testament scriptures remove all distinctions between clean and
unclean meats. But what do these passages really say?
Most theologians assume that God's
laws regarding clean and unclean meats ended at Christ's crucifixion.
They suppose that the New Covenant removes the need for Christians to keep such
laws. But is that what the Bible says?
The administrative change from the Levitical priesthood to the ministry of Jesus
Christ did not void God's expectations that His people obey His law of clean and
unclean meats (or any other law) as part of their sanctification, or separation,
as people of God (see Leviticus 11:44-47; 19:2; 20:7, 22-26; 21:8). Peter and
Paul both speak of the continuing need for God's people to be holy (Ephesians
1:4; 1 Peter 1:14-16).
Some Bible scholars acknowledge that members of the early Church continued to
observe the distinctions between clean and unclean meats. However, because of
the common misconception that the New Covenant abolishes much of God's law, many
assume these food requirements were simply Jewish cultural practices that
continued until the Church became more gentile in composition and outlook. Such
preconceived ideas have influenced interpretations of many New Testament
passages. In theological circles this is known as eisegesis, or reading
one's own ideas into Scripture.
Let's examine the New Testament passages dealing with food. As we do that let's
practice exegesis-drawing meaning out of Scripture by seeking a thorough
understanding of the background of a passage as we seek to apply it.
Peter's vision: Did God cleanse all meats?
One often-misunderstood section of the Bible concerns Peter's vision in which he
"saw heaven opened and an object like a great sheet bound at the four
corners, descending to him and let down to the earth." In this sheet
"were all kinds of four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping
things, and birds of the air." Peter heard a voice tell him, "Rise,
Peter; kill and eat" (Acts 10:11-13).
Assuming the vision meant he should eat unclean animals, Peter spontaneously
responded: "Not so, Lord! For I have never eaten anything common or
unclean" (verse 14). The same vision came to Peter three times (verse 16).
At this point many readers, without finishing the account, assume they know the
meaning of the vision-that God told Peter we are now free to eat any kind of
animal flesh we desire. In context, however, these scriptures show that this is
not at all what Peter understood. On the contrary, even after seeing the vision
three times he still "wondered within himself what this vision which he had
seen meant" (verse 17).
Later Peter realized the significance of the revelation. It was that "God
has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean"
(verse 28). Recognizing the real intent of the vision, Peter baptized the first
gentiles (non-Israelites) God called into the Church (verses 45-48).
This divine disclosure, we see from reading further in the account, did not
concern food at all. Rather, it concerned people. Because the
Jewish religious leaders at the time of Christ had erroneously considered
gentiles to be unclean, this dramatic vision righted a common misperception that
had come to affect Peter and other members of the Church. It demonstrated that
God was beginning to offer salvation to members of any race. Gentiles whom God
was calling were now welcomed into the Church.
Far from abolishing God's instructions against eating unclean meats, these
verses show that, almost 20 years after Christ's death, Peter had "never
eaten anything common or unclean."
Peter obviously had not assumed that God had annulled His own food laws or that
Christ's death and resurrection rendered them obsolete. From Peter's own words
we see that he continued to faithfully follow those laws.
Nor do we find any evidence that he ate unclean meats after this experience. He
obviously continued to obey God's laws delineating meats that could and could
not be eaten and saw no reason to change his practice. He realized that the
puzzling vision could not be annulling God's instructions, which is why he
"thought about the vision" until he understood its meaning (verses
17-19, 28)-that gentiles could become members of the Church, too (verses 34-35,
Food controversy in the Church
When reading through the New Testament, we do find references to a controversy
in the early Church involving food.
A careful examination of the Scriptures, however, reveals the issue to be
different from what many assume.
In 1 Corinthians 8 the apostle Paul discussed "the eating of things offered
to idols" (verse 4). Why was this an issue?
"Meat was often sacrificed on pagan altars and dedicated to pagan gods in
Paul's day. Later this meat was offered for sale in the public meat markets.
Some Christians wondered if it were morally right for Christians to eat such
meat that had previously been sacrificed to pagan gods" (Nelson's New
Illustrated Bible Dictionary, 1995, "Meat").
It is interesting, though not conclusive, to note that in Acts 14:13, the only
passage in which the type of animal sacrificed to idols is mentioned, it was
oxen-clean animals-that were about to be offered.
This controversy was not over the kinds of meat that should be eaten. Obedient
Jews of the day, in accordance with God's instruction, did not consider unclean
meat even to be a possible source of food. Instead, the controversy dealt with
the conscience of each believer.
Paul explained that "an idol is nothing" (1 Corinthians 8:4),
clarifying that it was permissible to eat meats that had been sacrificed to an
idol. That an animal had been sacrificed to a pagan god had no bearing on
whether the meat was suitable for food.
Paul continued: "However, there is not in everyone that knowledge; for
some, with consciousness of the idol, until now eat it as a thing offered to an
idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. But food does not commend us
to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the
worse" (verses 7-8).
When a believer bought meat in the market or was invited to a meal at which meat
was served, it was not necessary to determine whether anyone had offered it to
an idol, said Paul (1 Corinthians 10:25-27). His concern was that the brethren
be considerate of others who believed differently. He taught that in such cases
it was better for them not to eat meat than to risk causing offense (1
Corinthians 8:13; 10:28).
The question of meat sacrificed to idols was a considerable controversy in New
Testament times. It is the foundation of many of Paul's discussions of Christian
liberty and conscience. Unlike God's law of clean and unclean animals, which was
straightforwardly recorded in the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures do not
discuss the matter of food offered to idols. But, in the first-century world of
the New Testament, this issue varied in significance and importance to members
according to their conscience and understanding.
The timing of Paul's letters
The chronological relationship between Paul's letters to the members in Corinth
and his correspondence with those in Rome is another important piece of
background information people often overlook.
Many believe Romans 14 supports the idea that Christians are free from all
former restrictions regarding the meats they may eat. Verse 14, in which Paul
wrote, "I know and am convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing
unclean of itself; but to him who considers anything to be unclean, to him it is
unclean," is often cited as a proof text for this view (see
"Understanding 'Unclean' in Romans 14," page 6).
This approach, however, fails to consider Paul's perspective and the context of
his letter to the Roman church. Many Bible resources agree that Paul wrote the
book of 1 Corinthians around A.D. 55 and that he wrote his epistle to the Romans
from Corinth in 56 or 57. As demonstrated above, the food controversy in Corinth
was over meat sacrificed to idols. Since Paul was writing to the Romans from
Corinth, where this had been a significant issue, the subject was fresh on
Paul's mind and is the logical, biblically supported basis for his comments in
Understanding Paul's intent
Those who assume the subject of Romans 14 is a retraction of God's law regarding
clean and unclean animals must force this interpretation into the text because
it has no biblical foundation. The historical basis for the discussion appears,
from evidence in the chapter itself, to have been meat sacrificed to idols.
Verse 2 contrasts the one who "eats only vegetables" with the one who
believes "he may eat all things"-meat as well as vegetables. Verse 6
discusses eating vs. not eating and is variously interpreted as referring to
fasting (not eating or drinking), vegetarianism (consuming only vegetables) or
eating or not eating meat sacrificed to idols.
Verse 21 shows that meat offered to idols was the dominant issue of this
chapter: "It is good neither to eat meat nor drink wine nor do anything by
which your brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak." Romans of the
day commonly offered both meat and wine to idols, with portions of the offerings
later sold in the marketplace.
The Life Application Bible comments on verse 2: "The ancient system of
sacrifice was at the center of the religious, social, and domestic life of the
Roman world. After a sacrifice was presented to a god in a pagan temple, only
part of it was burned. The remainder was often sent to the market to be sold.
Thus a Christian might easily-even unknowingly-buy such meat in the marketplace
or eat it at the home of a friend.
"Should a Christian question the source of his meat? Some thought there was
nothing wrong with eating meat that had been offered to idols because idols were
worthless and phony. Others carefully checked the source of their meat or gave
up meat altogether, in order to avoid a guilty conscience. The problem was
especially acute for Christians who had once been idol worshipers. For them,
such a strong reminder of their pagan days might weaken their newfound faith.
Paul also deals with this problem in 1 Corinthians 8."
What is the point of Paul's instruction in Romans 14? Depending upon their
consciences, early believers had several choices they could make while traveling
or residing in their communities. If they did not want to eat meat that had been
sacrificed to idols, they could choose to fast or eat only vegetables to make
sure they did not consume any meat of suspicious background that might offend
their consciences. If their consciences were not bothered by eating meat
sacrificed to idols, they could choose any of the options. Within this context,
said Paul, "let each be fully convinced in his own mind" (verse 5)
because "whatever is not from faith is sin" (verse 23).
Romans 14 is, in part, a chapter on Christian liberty-acting according to one's
conscience within the framework of God's laws as they pertained to meat
sacrificed to idols. Understood in its context, Romans 14 does not convey
permission to eat pork or any other unclean meat. When one understands that the
food controversy of the New Testament era dealt with meat sacrificed to idols
and not which meats were clean, other scriptures become clear.
Debate over ceremonial cleansing
Another often-misunderstood passage is Mark 7:18-19. Here Jesus said: "Do
you not perceive that whatever enters a man from outside cannot defile him,
because it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and is eliminated, thus
purifying all foods?" The subject here-made obvious from verses 2-5-was unwashed
hands, not which meats could be eaten. The purification of food referred to
the way the body's digestive process eliminates minor impurities such as those
that might be present from eating with unwashed hands.
The Pharisees, like Jesus and His disciples, ate only meat the Scriptures
specified as clean. They objected, however, when Jesus and His disciples did not
go through the Pharisees' customary ritual of meticulously washing their hands
Jesus, whose hands were sufficiently clean for eating, even if not clean enough
to meet the Pharisees' humanly devised standards-explained that the human body
was designed to handle any small particles of dust or dirt that might enter it
due to handling food with hands that hadn't been ritually washed.
He further suggested that, if the Pharisees were serious about wanting to obey
God, they needed to revise their priorities. Cleansing one's thoughts, He said,
is eminently more spiritually important than washing one's hands (verses 20-23).
The New International Version of the Bible renders the latter part of verse 19:
"(In saying this, Jesus declared all foods 'clean')." The New American
Standard Bible similarly offers: "(Thus He declared all foods clean.)"
These translations stand in stark contrast to the King James and New King James
versions, which indicate that the bodily digestive process purifies food as
opposed to Jesus making a pronouncement reversing God's laws on which meats to
eat. Which interpretation is correct?
The King James and New King James renditions best fit the context, which
concerns eating with ceremonially unwashed hands rather than deciding which kind
of flesh is suitable to be eaten. They also best fit the New Testament culture
wherein Jews and Christians ate only clean meats.
Notice that in both the NIV and NASB the latter part of verse 19 is in
parentheses, as though Mark is explaining Christ's words. This is obviously an interpretation
of the original wording of Mark's Gospel. In the original Greek the words
"In saying this, Jesus declared" (NIV) and "Thus He
declared" (NASB) are not present; translators have added them to explain
what they think Mark intended and as a result have placed their own preconceived
and mistaken interpretations on Jesus' words.
Putting together all the scriptures on the subject helps us properly understand
the biblical perspective (See "How Should We Understand Scripture?,"
page 5). When we see from passages such as Acts 10, discussed earlier, that
Peter had eaten no unclean meat as late as 20 years after Christ's death, it
becomes obvious that the apostles did not believe He had abolished the commands
against eating unclean meats.
Such a view simply cannot be sustained in the light of plain scriptures to the
No New Testament passages describe Christians eating meats that had been
considered unclean; such a view is glaringly absent in the Bible. On the
contrary, we find many scriptures in which the apostle Paul vigorously and
repeatedly upholds adherence to God's laws (Acts 24:14; 25:8; Romans 3:31; 7:12,
22), as did James, the half brother of Christ (James 2:8-12; 4:11), and John (1
John 3:4). Violating God's laws regarding clean and unclean would have been
unthinkable to them.
Colossian controversy clarified
When Paul wrote that Christians should "let no one judge you in food or in
drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths" (Colossians
2:16), some assume the believers he was addressing were eating pork and other
meats previously considered unclean. Again, the Bible nowhere supports this
In reality, the issue of clean and unclean meats is nowhere addressed in this
passage. Paul doesn't discuss which foods the Colossians were consuming; the
Greek word brosis, translated "food," refers not to food itself
but rather to "the act of eating" (Vine's Complete
Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, 1985, p. 245, emphasis
Some other translations make this clear. The Twentieth Century New Testament,
for example, translates this as "Do not, then, allow any one to take you to
task on questions of eating and drinking . . ."
Although many assume that Paul's criticism is directed at teachers who advocated
Old Testament practices (such as following the law and practicing circumcision),
no biblical evidence supports this view. However, we should recognize that
perversions of proper biblical practice abounded at the time, both in Judaism
and the emerging early Church. As the International Standard Bible
Encyclopaedia explains: "There is more than Judaism in this false
Its teachers look to intermediary spirits, angels whom they worship; and insist
on a very strict asceticism" (1939 edition, "Epistle to the
The false teaching Paul condemned contained many elements of
asceticism-avoidance of anything enjoyable-which was intended to make its
followers more spiritual. Notice his instructions to the Colossians:
"Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world,
why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations-'Do
not touch, do not taste, do not handle,' which all concern things which perish
with the using-according to the commandments and doctrines of men? These things
indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility,
and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the
flesh" (Colossians 2:20-23).
From this we see the ascetic nature of the error Paul was combating. The false
teachers' deluded attempt to attain greater spirituality included "neglect
of the body" (verse 23). Paul characterized their misguided rules as
"Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle" (verse 21). Their efforts
created only a "false humility" (verse 23) and were destined to fail
because they were based on "the commandments and doctrines of men"
(verse 22) rather than God's instruction.
Paul admonished the church at Colosse not to listen to the ascetics. Rather than
abrogating God's laws concerning unclean meats-which some people incorrectly
read into this passage-Paul is instructing the Colossian members not to concern
themselves with ascetic teachers who criticized the manner in which the
Colossians enjoyed God's festivals and Sabbaths. Such enjoyment, although
condemned by these false teachers, is perfectly acceptable to God.
In this section of Colossians Paul encourages the Church to hold fast to its
teachings and proper understanding; it is not a treatise on which foods to eat
or on which days to worship God. We must be careful not to read preconceived
notions into these or any other scriptures.
Misunderstood instructions to Timothy
Still another part of Paul's writings that is often misunderstood is 1 Timothy
4:3-5, where he speaks of false teachers "forbidding to marry, and
commanding to abstain from foods which God created to be received with
thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For every creature of God
is good, and nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving; for
it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer."
What was the motivation of these false teachers? Did Paul warn Timothy against
teachers who would advocate keeping the biblical laws concerning clean and
unclean meats? Or was something else at work?
We know Paul told Timothy that God inspired the Old Testament scriptures to be
"profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in
righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16), so the notion isn't credible that Paul
would caution Timothy against adhering to instructions found in those same
On the other hand, Paul's words show us the real problem: These teachers were
demanding that people follow commands not found in the Bible. They were
"forbidding to marry," yet marriage is encouraged, not discouraged, in
the Scriptures. They were also "commanding to abstain from foods which God
created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the
The Life Application Bible helps us understand the background of the problem
Paul addressed here: "The danger that Timothy faced in Ephesus seems to
have come from certain people in the church who were following some Greek
philosophers who taught that the body was evil and that only the soul mattered.
The false teachers refused to believe that the God of creation was good, because
his very contact with the physical world would have soiled him . . . [They] gave
stringent rules (such as forbidding people to marry or to eat certain foods).
This made them appear self-disciplined and righteous."
Paul discusses the true source of these heretical teachings in 1 Timothy 4:1:
Rather than being founded in the Bible, these teachings originated with
"deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons." Thus we see the problem
in 1 Timothy 4 was perverted worldly asceticism, not obedience to God's laws
that define clean and unclean meats.
Paul's assumption was that "those who believe and know the truth"
(verse 3) would be familiar with the scriptures that identify which meats were
"sanctified [set apart] by the word of God" (verse 5) for our
enjoyment. He encouraged Timothy to remind them to let the Scriptures be their
guide instead of these ascetic teachers.
As in the situation Paul discussed in his letter to the Colossians, the problem
Paul addressed with Timothy was asceticism, not adherence to God's dietary laws.
A broader view of history
As we have seen, no scriptural evidence exists that indicates that members of
the early Church ever changed their practice of following God's instructions
regarding clean and unclean meats. Instead, we see the unambiguous words of one
of the apostles that show that, some two decades after Christ's death and
resurrection, he had "never eaten anything common or unclean."
Does the Bible give us any other indication regarding when and for how long
these laws were to remain in effect? Let's set the present aside and move
forward in the history of humanity to the coming time of Christ's return to
earth to establish the Kingdom of God. A sharply defined picture of His will for
the future provides additional understanding to help guide us in the present.
The book of Revelation, in describing the end-time events leading up to the
return of Christ, uses the expression "a haunt for every unclean and
hated bird!" (Revelation 18:2). If clean and unclean designations no longer
exist, why did Jesus inspire this picture for John? God is consistent and
unchanging (James 1:17; Malachi 3:6; 4:4; Hebrews 13:8; Matthew 5:17-19).
Animals He categorized as unclean thousands of years ago remain unclean in the
Another passage that refers to the time of Jesus' return to earth presents this
picture: "For behold, the LORD will come with fire and with His chariots,
... the LORD will judge all flesh; and the slain of the LORD shall be many.
'Those who sanctify themselves and purify themselves, to go to the gardens after
an idol in the midst, eating swine's flesh and the abomination and the mouse,
shall be consumed together,' says the LORD" (Isaiah 66:15-17). Here we see
that, at Christ's return, eating unclean things is condemned and those who do so
will be punished.
The biblical position is clear. Distinctions between clean and unclean meats
existed long before the New Testament was written; they were followed by the
leaders and other members of the early Church; and they are to be observed even
by their successors in the modern Church, which "keeps the commandments of
God and has the testimony of Jesus Christ" (Revelation 12:17).
As we have seen, they will continue in effect and will be enforced by Jesus
Himself in the future. Even though first-century Christians struggled with their
consciences over meat sacrificed to idols, the Bible indicates that they lived
in harmony with God's instruction regarding clean and unclean meats. Shouldn't
we also live in harmony with those laws?
God designed and gave His laws for our benefit. As the apostle Paul wrote, the
"benefits of religion are without limit, since it holds out promise not
only for this life but also for the life to come" (1 Timothy 4:8, Revised
All insects except some in the locust
Marine Animals Without Scales and Fins
Sturgeon (includes most caviar)